The Apartment Building from Hell
The late-day sun makes the cracked streets and crumbling buildings of Overtown look faded and flattened out in the yellow light and hot dense air. With a deceptively casual glance, Miss Regina reads the groupings of men loitering 50 yards away on front steps and sidewalks along NW Fifteenth Street. They're so obviously idle they look like extras in some minimalist movie, shot on scratched film.
"They're just waitin' for me to move out," Miss Regina announces with a toss of her head. She's standing at the tall spike fence in front of her apartment building, on the inside looking out. "Then they'll come back and take it over." The men, whom Regina and her neighbors generally refer to as dope boys, dealt drugs from their building for years.
Tanya, pushing a stroller out the front door of her apartment, nods silently at Regina's remark. The smooth oval faces of both Tanya and her month-old son are devoid of expression. Two of Tanya's other children are somewhere else, playing with their friends, all of them no doubt coated with sticky grime but hopefully not with the sewage that leaks onto the ground around the building. Her eleven-year-old son is across the street, shyly observing the indolent men, who are not much older than he is.
Regina and Tanya are among the last remaining residents of the Crispus Attucks apartments at 1445 NW First Ave. By August 10 every last mother and child was scheduled to have moved out, and perhaps by then the landlord would have begun boarding up the doors and windows. More likely, though, the dope dealers would have come back to their old haunts.
This 40-year-old, turquoise-painted building is named for the first man to die in the American Revolution, the runaway slave Crispus Attucks. The condition and reputation of the building are less noble. This past April the City of Miami's Nuisance Abatement Board (NAB) declared the property a public nuisance and ordered it vacated and shuttered. The April 30 closure order issued by the NAB calls the 27-unit Crispus Attucks "a drug haven and the source of heroin in the Overtown community." The spare description barely hinted at the reality that's confronted daily by the residents, all single mothers and their children.
They might have gone on in the same way indefinitely, a community of women locked in a nightmarish arrangement with men who make their living in Overtown's economic mainstay: drugs. About three years ago the building ceased to be a housing complex and essentially became a 24-hour department store run by drug dealers. Each group of dealers had its own specialty and its own section of the three-story property, and more than enough weapons to settle the occasional misunderstanding.
They operated in eight-hour shifts. "We're talking about ten different dealers, and each dealer has his lieutenants," explains Regina. "See, heroin was to your west. You got marijuana on the second floor in front. Crack was on my side. You know what they call this place on the street? New Jack." Translation: new money, drug money. "We had twelve other mothers here and drug dealers running around with MAC 10s." Police, guns drawn, would crash through the apartments at all hours in pursuit of dealers and robbers while the women and children scampered out of their path.
And then there were the rats, roaches, and ants; the broken toilets, stoves, and cabinets, and walls rotting with mildew; the trash heaps and ankle-deep sewage right there in the front yard. Those conditions the residents blamed for their children's scabies, ringworm, even lead poisoning. The building's exterior lights didn't work for a year and a half. At night the only way a woman could tell if someone was approaching her door was if Jacque, the communal watchdog, barked from her post on the third-floor balcony.
They would have continued existing in the middle -- afraid of the drug dealers and the police alike, watching their living conditions deteriorate and not even knowing whether help was available -- if Miss Regina hadn't decided to make an issue of it. At first she didn't know where to turn, but eventually she persuaded authorities to listen to a handful of unlearned, poor, black, single mothers to whom nobody had paid attention before. (All names in this story except Regina's have been changed.)
"We should not have to get used to that life," Regina exclaims, pointing in the air like a preacher. "We aren't going to play victim anymore." She is given to making dramatic statements that match her tall, ample physical presence. At age 42 she is among the eldest of the tenants, one reason the women began calling her Miss Regina. She is a "towner," having lived her entire life in Overtown, but unlike most of her neighbors she is educated and active in church work. Still, Regina contends she wanted only change, no big social drama, when she took on her rich and respected landlord.
"It shouldn't have been me to raise holy hell," she goes on. "The people in charge of this place should have been doing what they were supposed to. And what makes it even more difficult for us to understand is that the owner is a prominent businessman in the community. He let his own people down."
She is referring to publisher, banker, and long-time civil rights activist Garth Reeves. The 80-year-old Reeves is publisher emeritus of the Miami Times, the black-oriented weekly newspaper his father founded in 1923. He is also majority owner of Peoples National Bank of Commerce, and has extensive residential and commercial property holdings in Miami-Dade County. These include at least one other rental apartment building, in Liberty City. More than $10,000 in delinquent property taxes are due on that building, which is currently vacant and has been cited by City of Miami code inspectors for being an unsafe structure.
But only the New Jack has come before the Nuisance Abatement Board, its condition aired publicly in televised hearings over the course of almost a year. "I don't know what was behind this thing," Reeves protests, claiming he put far more money into the building than he got out of it during thirteen years of ownership. "I don't know what [the tenants] were trying to prove, what they were trying to do to me. I have a reputation in this community. They weren't anybody but poor people; I think they were being used [by others who wanted the building closed]."
Both Reeves and Gladstone Cooper, the property manager Reeves hired more than a year ago, have insisted they've kept the building in the best shape possible. They blame the tenants for breaking what was fixed and the police for not controlling the crime. Most of all they blame the suffocating reality of Overtown, the poverty and drugs. Reeves estimates he spent at least $3000 per month on repairs and maintenance, but now the building is up for sale. "I'm not going to be a landlord anymore," he asserts. "I refuse to try to solve the homeless or drug problem or the plight of the poor. I've been living here 80 years and I'm through with championing causes." He has little choice now but to give up on Crispus Attucks. To put the property back on the rental market would require some $50,000 worth of renovations, and the federal Section 8 housing contract that once guaranteed Reeves plentiful rental income has been canceled.
Reeves, a multimillionaire who still works out of his office at the Miami Times, has received numerous awards for his contributions to civil rights and civic causes. Recently he's been involved in efforts to commemorate the history of Virginia Key Beach, formerly the only beach in Dade County where blacks were allowed to swim. In 1959 Reeves was among a group staging a "wade-in" at Crandon Park that led to the desegregation of the area's beaches.
Those who lived at Crispus Attucks find it absurd that Reeves is devoting himself to this long-ago cause when he has failed to maintain minimal standards of living for his tenants, who are also black. "He was just down there appearing on Virginia Beach," notes Alexis, who lived next door to Regina on the third floor before moving out this past week. "Why didn't he ever show up here and see what we had to put up with?"
The tattered, velour-covered sofa and armchairs in Alexis's two-bedroom apartment smelled of mildew, and there were deep holes in the kitchen floor and wall. The ceiling in the children's bedroom was showing water stains even after being replastered a year ago. Heavy rains in August 1998 turned the roof into a sieve, and most of the apartments were extensively damaged. Reeves put up several of the tenants in Biscayne Boulevard motels while the roof was fixed, but some apartments, the women say, continued to leak when it rained.
By the time Alexis and her four children finally found a new place, the closet in the children's bedroom had been unusable for months. Clothes were piled on the floor; there was no place to hang them and the closet doors had been pulled off the hinges and leaned against the walls. The window looking on to the balcony had a large, two-year-old hole in the glass. Alexis had nailed a board over the inside of the frame.
The view from that window, if it could be seen, would be of a dirt front yard, shaded by a thick black olive tree. Behind the front gate sits an ancient rusted barbecue grill and two metal poles that look like the base for a bus bench. Scattered on the ground along the north side of the yard are scraps of white tissue, debris from the last sewage leak.
Alexis's two eldest children are thirteen and eleven, both slim girls with huge round eyes like their mother's. But while 33-year-old Alexis is fast-spoken and edgy, the girls are quiet. They would sit patiently during summer afternoons on the pitted concrete steps of New Jack as if they were waiting for the inevitable: just a matter of time before they'd be pregnant, giving birth, and pregnant again.
For years no men lived at New Jack, at least not for long. Only young boys. The women knew that once their sons reached adolescence they'd be gone, one way or another. "They're either dead or locked up or working for drug dealers," Regina declares dryly. "They're all gonna die. If you play the game or associate with people who play the game, you will die. I tell the mothers every day: 'Try to keep a good picture of what your sons look like because you're gonna be taking them to the graveyard.'"
Regina's 22-year-old son Maurice will be an exception. He's a student at Florida Memorial College, studying elementary education. He's out of Overtown. Regina tried to keep her five-year-old daughter Bethany inside their apartment as much as possible, partly because the girl has asthma and partly to shield her from the infirmities the other kids picked up from playing in sewage and handling drug paraphernalia. One positive aspect of her staying at home: She can already read.
Regina flew into a weeping rage last year when she walked outside to find Bethany proudly "practicing to be a doctor" with one of several syringes she'd collected in the yard. The incident prompted Regina to write a two-page letter to City Commissioner Art Teele: "At that time, I felt my whole world caving in. How could I place my child in harm's way? No mother should have to experience this. How could our owner/landlord have ignored my request to secure the vacant apartment where addicts live? We come to you with ... hope and faith that you will rally with us." Regina followed up the letter with calls to Teele's office, but she says he didn't respond.
One reason Regina gets emotional about drugs is her own past addiction, which she overcame ten years ago. Growing up in Overtown, she's seen scores of her peers succumb to myriad drug-related plagues. One of ten children raised on NW Sixth Street by a single mother, Regina says she graduated from Miami Senior High and enrolled at the University of Miami with hopes of becoming a lawyer. But she got pregnant, dropped out, and didn't return to school for sixteen years. She is a licensed practical nurse and sometimes works temporary nursing jobs through an agency, though she spends more time caring for her mother, now an invalid with multiple sclerosis.
Regina has lived at Crispus Attucks for fourteen years and remembers when the building not only looked good but the neighborhood was generally peaceful. She moved there between the two riots in Liberty City and Overtown, in 1980 and in 1989. The federal government was handing out big money then for urban revitalization projects. Garth Reeves got in on the action, buying and renovating the Crispus Attucks building and then signing a fifteen-year Section 8 contract for the place.
The Section 8 program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) pays all or most of the rent for low-income tenants who qualify. All residents at 1445 NW First Ave. were Section 8 tenants, though two were recently disqualified. A tenant's portion of rent is determined by income; most of the women at Crispus Attucks paid from zero to about $50 for a two- or three-bedroom apartment, and Reeves would receive the balance from the government. At the time his contract was canceled he was receiving between $418 and $483 per unit.
The Miami-Dade Housing Agency administered Reeves's Section 8 contract at Crispus Attucks. The agency is required by HUD regulations to inspect each apartment at least once per year. If a unit doesn't pass inspection, the county must withhold payment to the landlord until it does. According to Dale Poster-Ellis, director of the private rental division at the housing agency, Reeves hadn't received any Section 8 payments since March 1998 because not a single Crispus Attucks apartment had passed inspection since then. (Only nine were occupied at the time.)
A week before Thanksgiving 1997, people smoking crack inside the building's electric-meter room set it on fire. The room is easy to reach from the nearby railroad tracks, and easy to break into. (Several months ago the management installed a metal door with big locks; that kept the crackheads out for a few weeks.) The fire left all the apartments without electricity. "Naturally all the food everyone had bought for Thanksgiving spoiled," Regina recounts. "We had to eat from a Red Cross truck and then at a women's shelter." A few days before the holiday, exasperated with the delay in restoring power, Regina called then-Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez's office. "The mayor and his wife came down to New Jack on Thanksgiving," Regina adds. "That's right. Rita bought Pollo Tropical, and she put on an apron and served dinners for the women and children."
When something broke in their apartments, many of the mothers would complain first to Regina and she in turn would call the property manager, in part because she was one of the few with a phone. In June 1998 Reeves replaced his long-time management company with the Tampa firm Searchwell, Thorne & Associates. "So then we get a new manager," Regina recalls, "and he's saying he wants to make improvements and we say that's great, now we're gonna get our lights fixed and the back gate fixed and we're gonna get stoves and refrigerators that work. Well, a lot of the mothers got new stoves in January, half of which didn't work, and a couple of us got a refrigerator. Other than that I'd like to see what Mr. Reeves did with all that money he says he spent on repairs."
Through the summer of 1998, Regina wrote four times to Gladstone Cooper, the new manager assigned by Searchwell, Thorne & Associates. The letters informed Cooper of security problems and health hazards at the building, and which apartments were being occupied by drug dealers. Meanwhile code inspectors from the City of Miami's Overtown Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET) office were citing the property for code violations. Miranda Albury, the NET administrator, asserts that conditions at the building had worsened in recent years and didn't improve despite the citations and new management. Police made dozens of arrests but put not a dent in the crime in and around the apartments, crime that included car thefts, robberies, and assaults, in addition to drug trafficking.
Improving their quality of life wasn't necessarily a priority for all tenants. Some had been sheltering the dealers and robbers; some didn't want to risk angering the men who had power of life and death over them. "You can't do this by yourself," Regina remembers thinking. "I said [to the other women], 'Either you stand with me or leave.'" Two mothers moved out.
In September 1998 Albury formally brought Crispus Attucks to the attention of the city's Nuisance Abatement Board. The residents referred to the process as going to "court," and in practice the five-member board (appointed by the Miami City Commission) is a quasi-judicial body and hearings are much like trials.
At first Albury wasn't asking the board to shut down the property, only to order Reeves to fix the code violations cited by city inspectors. Reeves was summoned to city hall to respond. He didn't come in person; Cooper spoke on his behalf. Several tenants also attended, and the board called Regina as a witness.
At the first hearing the NAB ordered Cooper to complete several repairs, notably the exterior lights and the back gate that needed only an extrastrong lock to keep out the criminals and crackheads. During a series of NAB hearings over the next several months, Cooper claimed that the improvements had been made. City inspectors, however, brought photographs and witnesses to the hearings to argue that the property remained a blight on an already blighted neighborhood. (Cooper could not be located for comment.)
Police testified that they feared entering the building, especially in the pitch darkness of night. Repeated reverse stings, each resulting in some 20 to 30 arrests, did little to slow the drug trafficking. "It was so bad and so flagrant," recalls NET commander Lt. Bobbie J. Meeks, "that officers could be there effecting an arrest and a guy would come up and try to buy drugs from [the undercover officers]. That's how bad it was. Some of the residents were harboring criminals in their apartments. [Criminals] would do a robbery somewhere and then run into the building and hide in one of the apartments."
Not only hide themselves, but hide the goods. "I tell you, that was like a nightmare anytime they broke in anywhere," Regina says wearily. "They'd take over one of the empty apartments and the dope dealers would let 'em sell [the stolen goods] out of there."
"A lot of the tenants are caught in the middle," Ofcr. Allen Davis explained at one NAB hearing. "They have choices, but these guys are actually coming [into their apartments] and forcing their will on them. By far this is the worst property we have. In my personal opinion this one building provides 80 percent of the heroin in Overtown."
In late 1998 Reeves offered a vacant apartment for use as a police ministation, but Meeks didn't have the manpower to operate a separate office. At one point property manager Cooper allowed the police to conduct a long-term sting operation out of an empty apartment. The ensuing multiple arrests served only to emphasize the danger and lawlessness of the place. During the April 1999 hearing at which the NAB voted to shut down the property, Cooper lashed out at police. He accused them of deceiving him and of not doing enough to stop the criminal activity. "The very results were used against us for cooperating," intoned Cooper, his elaborate gray suit with its wide lapels and pocket handkerchief contrasting with the skirts, blouses, and sandals of the tenants. "To suddenly now recognize something is wrong after we cooperated and complied is not only unfair but highly disingenuous."
Regina's payback for cooperating -- for telling the NAB exactly what was going on -- was worse. "Now I was public enemy number-one," she says. "Since I been to court [NAB] I've had flat tires, I've had people come up and threaten me. I've had people offer me money. Oh, yes. 'Miss Regina, we could pay you $200 a week. Just let us do our business.' Some dealers were making $1000 a day. How do you think they feel about Miss Regina? The longevity of their business depends on the longevity of that building.
"I didn't realize," she continues, "public hearings were on TV until I got home from a hearing and everybody was telling me they saw me speaking, and I thought, Oh my God, I can't let 'em know what I'm saying. If I had had my way, I don't think I would have done it. I'm a chicken. I have to believe God prepared me for this."
Still Regina felt threatened enough to seek out one of the neighborhood kids who deals in stolen guns. He knew her, so he "leased" her a .44-caliber pistol for the modest sum of $25, with the understanding she'd eventually return it so he could sell it for many times that amount. After she and Bethany moved to their new quarters on NW 46th Street, she returned the gun.
Until two weeks ago Latosha lived on the first floor just beneath a vacant apartment that had been a crack dealership. In a board that was nailed over one window, someone had cut a hole just large enough to pass through money and crack. That apartment had caught fire six months earlier and the edges of the door and boarded-up windows were blackened.
But Latosha is not a woman who is fazed by much. At age 27 she's seen her brother murdered on the sidewalk a block away, and she's been arrested a dozen times for theft, stalking, and assault (no drug offenses, though, which would disqualify her from Section 8). She's on probation now, taking anger-management classes and caring for her four young children. The two eldest are standout students, remarkable considering their daily distractions.
For months before the family moved out (to an apartment north of Overtown), their toilet didn't function. Latosha had to pour water into the bowl to flush it. The stove worked, but the oven didn't. The worst thing was the children's bedroom. All four slept on a bunk bed, two to a mattress, just inside a window with no glass. At one corner of the window drug dealers had ripped a hole in the screen. "They would sit there on the steps," Latosha explains, pointing to the stairwell obscuring the view from the window. "They made it so when the police came, they could throw the drugs in here. So [the police] think I'm dealing." She smiles wanly, revealing about a dozen gold teeth.
Latosha is built like a bulwark and wears a Winnie the Pooh T-shirt. Still stuck on the bedroom walls are footlong, brightly colored crayon stickers, remnants of her decorating efforts. "They had a shootout awhile back," Latosha remembers. "I had to let the kids sleep inside my bed with me. I wouldn't let them in that room when they were serving out there. They had customers lined up all the time -- breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It was like they was giving away free food."
Early this past June, about a month after the NAB ordered the closure of Crispus Attucks, the Miami-Dade Housing Agency finally canceled Garth Reeves's Section 8 contract "for noncompliance with conditions," according to Dale Poster-Ellis. "Plans were presented to us [by Reeves's management company] showing all the improvements to be made. We kept going out to the property and the improvements were never made." (Reeves doesn't have any other housing contracts with the agency, but if he did the cancellation wouldn't have affected the others; nor does it affect the tenants' eligibility for Section 8, which they carried with them to their new apartments.)
The afternoon goes to dusk. Alexis and Patrick, her man, rise from the balcony, where they've been sitting all afternoon sharing a few beers. They stretch and start down the steps. Alexis teasingly grabs a partially full half-liter bottle of Heineken from Patrick, who is not amused. He doesn't hide his recent backslide into drinking after years of sobriety. Alexis and Regina blame the environment -- New Jack, where Patrick has been staying the past few months -- for his relapse. "I can't blame it on no one but myself," he counters. "But in this place you get exposed to everything you don't want." Alexis tips the frosty green bottle to her lips, and drops of moisture sprinkle the top of her flowered sundress.
Regina, wearing a desert-hue African-print dress, is about to start up the steps to her apartment when she comes face to face with Kalim, Tanya's eleven-year-old. "I saw you over there with the older boys," she scolds him gently. "You wanna die young? You don't need that. Why you wanna be running around with those boys?"
Kalim doesn't answer. Six months ago he toted a plastic gun into a convenience store and jammed it to the head of the clerk. He was arrested, and his mother had to take him to juvenile court. Kalim never talks about the incident, although Tanya, Regina, and the other mothers don't need an explanation.
Kalim is skinny and tall for his age, with large almond-shaped eyes ringed in thick lashes. When he flashes a rare smile, it is dazzling. He's going to be moving north to 52nd Street, and maybe he will never again see the young dope- and gun-dealers across the street. Maybe something will draw him out of the cycle in which his mother and her mother grew up, never learning to read and insulated within a self-sustaining world of lawlessness and poverty. "I've seen this so many times," Regina observes, leaning her weight on her right hip, fanning her face with her hand. "You see the whole personality of the young boy and you know where he heading. It takes guts to go in and do what Kalim did. You know one like that is gonna die. Well, now that his mother's taking him out of New Jack he's got a 50-50 chance."
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